The women who were competing in the European championships last month chose to appear on the court wearing shorts, instead of bikini bottoms mandated in such sports. The team was fined 1,500 euros for what the European Handball Federation described as improper attire.
Following the Norwegians’ lead, the German gymnast team at the Tokyo Olympics made a point against the sexualisation of their sport by performing their routines in full-bodied unitards, instead of the traditional leotards. These instances have shone a spotlight on women’s sporting attire and the logic of couture when it comes to female athletes. As early as 1964, the US sports magazine, Sports Illustrated, crossed over into the arena of fashion when it began distributing its annual Swimsuit Issue which featured female fashion models, celebrities and athletes dressed in swimwear and photographed in exotic locations around the world. The magazine is credited with legitimising the bikini as an article of apparel. In reality, it had little to do with sports.
That is just one side of the story. The eyeballs attracted by grand slam matches, especially when it came to championships involving some of the top female athletes of the day, had become a selling point for tennis merchandise of all kinds. In the 70s, Chris Evert was referred to as the glam girl of tennis, thanks to her fashion-forward short skirts, and hairstyles. Although what she should be remembered for is that she reached 34 Grand Slam singles finals, more than any other player in the history of professional tennis. The glam quotient attributed to tennis stars, and the accompanying fashion endorsements continue to this day, with players like Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova and more. At times, the allure built around these stars reduces them to eye candy and overshadows their professional achievements on court.
Of course, what remains a constant is that the dress code is decided by a very specific demographic, the privileged, country club, white male. Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA had once said, female players should wear tighter shorts to boost the popularity of women’s football. Such blatant remarks have been a hallmark of international sports where female athletes have been watered down to flavours of the season. But often, a storm of dissent forces its way into the corridors of athletic couture. When Serena Williams in 2018 sported a Black Panther styled catsuit, designed to help prevent blood clots post-pregnancy, Rolland Garros quickly banned the outfit.
India is no stranger to such controversies as in 2008 when the very first IPL kicked off, cheerleaders had come under fire by politicians, who complained about their un-Indian outfits. Consequently, Royal Challengers Bangalore was compelled into showcasing modestly clad male and female cheerleaders. Of course, the winds of change are blowing in this debate as well.
The CEO of the Olympic Broadcast Services said last week that during the coverage of the Tokyo 2020 Games, the focus will be on the athlete’s performance and that a gender-neutral approach to filming will be adopted. The International Boxing Association has also lifted a ban on hijabs and other full-body uniforms that players wear for religious reasons.
What women choose to wear in the athletic arenas should be left to women. And the sporting bodies that give the final verdict on uniforms and dress codes may do well to ensure their committees have a diverse mix of men and women who can offer a balanced perspective on the kind of attire that would allow sportspersons to perform comfortably to the best of their abilities.